At Christmas, Remembering the Battle of the Bulge

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Victor Davis Hanson recalls the Battle of the Bulge, which I hadn’t realized was the bloodiest battle in U.S. history:

Seventy-five years ago, at the Battle of the Bulge (fought from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945), the United States suffered more casualties than in any other battle in its history. Some 19,000 Americans were killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 reported missing.

The American and British armies were completely surprised by a last-gasp German offensive, given that Allied forces were near the Rhine River and ready to cross into Germany to finish off a crippled Third Reich.

The Americans had been exhausted by a rapid 300-mile summer advance to free much of France and Belgium. In their complacency, they oddly did not worry much about their thinning lines, often green replacement troops or the still-formidable German army. After all, Nazi Germany was being battered on all sides by Americans, British, Canadians and Russians. Its cities were in ruins from heavy bombers.

Yet the losing side is often the most dangerous just before its collapse.

The Battle of the Bulge has a special resonance for me, because my father almost died in it. He was a college student when World War II broke out. He graduated, then enlisted in the Army. He was sent to one of the big Army bases in the South for basic training. In those days, they gave every enlistee an IQ test; maybe they still do. My father’s performance on the test was good enough that he was pulled out of the ranks and sent to graduate school to become an engineer. (Drill Sergeant, with privates lined up: “Hinderaker! Who’s Hinderaker?” My father, wondering what he could have done to get in trouble already, stepping forward: “I’m Private Hinderaker.” Drill Sergeant: “Congratulations, Private Hinderaker. You just got the highest score on the IQ test of anyone who has ever gone through this base.” That is how my mother told the story, 40 years ago.)

Many, if not most, of those who qualified for the engineering program were Jews, and my father, who came from a town of 200 in South Dakota, became a lifelong philo-Semite. All proceeded according to plan until June 1944 and the D-Day invasion. The Army concluded that the war wouldn’t last long enough to need another class of engineers, so they terminated the program and sent its participants to the front.

My father found himself in Belgium, assigned to divisional headquarters. One morning he was eating breakfast in the mess tent, along with many others, when someone ran breathlessly into the tent and shouted something like: “The Germans are attacking! The front has crumbled. They will be here in a matter of hours. Get to the rear any way you can, every man for himself!” My father was in the midst of eating the first real eggs he had tasted since joining the Army, so he delayed a few minutes before following the order.

He joined an informal group of three or four that included an officer (my father was a technical sergeant at that point). He said, many years later, that the presence of an officer was what saved them. They walked westward for a while; I am not sure how long, I think a few days, sleeping in barns or haystacks. The Germans were hot on the heels of the retreating Americans. At one point, my father’s group came to a country crossroads in Belgium. There were two roads they might follow, each veering off at a 45 degree angle. One of the roads led to Melmedy, the site, later that day, of the Melmedy Massacre. If they had gone that way, they would have been shot. Randomly, they chose the other direction.

They kept walking, not knowing how close the Germans’ advance detachments might be. Finally they saw dust rising up to the West. After a while, trucks came into view. When they met the first vehicles, they sat down in a ditch and watched them pass by. They were troop transports, each one full of American soldiers, sitting casually with their legs hanging over the edge, rifles across their thighs, unshaven, with cigarettes hanging from their lips. Not a care in the world, seemingly. That was the first time my father and his companions felt safe.

My father called them “the real soldiers,” on their way to the front. My memory could be playing tricks on me, but I think he told me, decades ago–like most World War II veterans, he did not dwell on such memories–that the soldiers who passed by on the trucks had red 1s on their sleeves–the First Infantry Division. That is possible, because the Big Red One had been given some time to refit in the rear after fighting its way up the Italian peninsula and then across France after D-Day. They swung back into action to help stop the German advance.

At the moment on that day in December 1944 when the messenger ran into the mess tent, my father’s chances of survival, although he couldn’t know it then, were not great. As it turned out, most of those with whom he had studied engineering were killed, wounded or captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was saved because he had been assigned to divisional headquarters, not because of his intellectual attainments, such as they were, but–in one of life’s little ironies–because he could type. (“Is it true what it says here, that you can type?” “Yeah, I can type.” “You’re going to headquarters.”)

So this is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle in U.S. military history. It almost killed my father, and it did kill many of his friends. Unlike so many, he is still living at age 98. Like, I suppose, every veteran, he never forgot the friends who didn’t come home from the war.

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